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Lack of prison needle programs a breach of human rights and international law

The ACT government has been praised for leading the nation on the issue of prison needle and syringe programs.

But the author of an essay, published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, urged it to let expert advice, not unions, decide public health policy.

In April, the government deferred controversial plans for a PNSP in Canberra jail until the idea got the green light from prison staff.

Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury said a new proposal would be produced and put to staff.

The announcement ended a two-year stalemate on a pay deal for Alexander Maconochie Centre staff, after a clause related to the proposed needle exchange program became a sticking point in negotiations.

The decision to shelve the program drew heavy criticism from drug-user advocates.


A group of experts, led by Associate Professor Mark Stoové, head of the HIV and Justice Health Research programs at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, said the absence of prison needle programs in Australia constituted a breach of human rights and international law.

Professor Stoové said Australia was one of 74 countries that support community needle programs but not PNSPs.

Only eight countries currently maintain PNSPs, despite support from peak health and medical bodies, including the Australian Medical Association, Australasian Society for HIV Medicine, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Globally, bodies such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, also support the regimes.

Professor Stoové said drugs users are grossly over-represented in Australian prisons, and up to 58 per cent of prisoners nationally report lifetime injecting histories.

The prevalence of blood-borne viruses – often transmitted through sharing injecting equipment – is common behind prison walls, with high rates of intra-prison hepatitis C transmission reported.

"Unlike in the community, people who inject drugs in Australian prisons cannot access sterile needles and syringes," the essay said.

"Research and evaluation evidence shows no increase in drug use or availability following PNSP implementation and no reports of needles and syringes provided by PNSPs being used as weapons, or safety problems associated with syringe disposal."

The essay said the ACT had been the only jurisdiction to show leadership on the issue.

"While it is hoped that AMC staff might depart from the CPSU's historical resistance to PNSPs, the ACT government must show the leadership lacking in other jurisdictions by allowing evidence and expert advice, rather than unions, guide public health policy."